THE OPENNESS and beauty of the west Central Lowlands of Scotland (Yon wandering rill that marks the hill, And glances o’er the brae*) evoked in the cover art to tenor saxophonist Matt Carmichael’s Where Will The River Flow hints at the contemporary expressions of jazz and Scots folk heritage found in this vitalising debut album.
From Dunbartonshire, and soon to graduate from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, 21-year-old Carmichael began playing at around the age of 11. A Peter Whittingham Development Award in 2019 recognised the potential that had earlier been seen by saxophonist Tommy Smith (“better than I was at that age”) who invited him to join his youth jazz orchestra. More recently, he also impressed as a finalist in 2020’s BBC Young Jazz Musician awards, playing his own compositions which included numbers from this album.
Like so many Scottish composers and players before him, the beauty of Carmichael’s homeland strongly informs these nine tracks which are melodically fresh, yet can also erupt with vivacity and technical flair. Their folksy footing means that, while these originals don’t head into the rugged terrain of more exploratory, avant garde jazz, they can most certainly jig with an infectious joie de vivre – and that’s due in equal part to the ebullience of his quartet colleagues, pianist Fergus McCreadie, double bassist Ali Watson and drummer Tom Potter.
The Spey is perhaps the most boisterous example of that – a breathlessly rapid reel reflecting ‘the fastest river in Scotland’, which nevertheless provides space for McCreadie’s improvisatory vigour (becoming his signature, as heard in recent release Cairn). It also demonstrates Carmichael’s confidence in writing a ruthlessly difficult main figure to share with the pianist (eventually) on the bandstand! Another river depiction, Firth – specifically, the Moray Firth – teems and tumbles over itself to Tom Potter’s thrashing percussion as it heads over to the North Sea. The title track, too, is an eleven-minute hike that climaxes in gushing, torrential grandeur – an indicator of the saxophonist’s unbounded optimism, amidst current artistic ‘turbulence’, in the early stages of what promises to be a fulfilling career.
Just as warming are Carmichael’s more mellow excursions into the great outdoors of his childhood. Cononbridge (near Inverness) ambles to the homey, rhythmic tread of piano, bass and drums; and its softly whirling tenor melody possesses ‘sig tune’ appeal, while also joyfully scaling improvisational heights. Looking north-east from the summit, Carmichael recalls his time studying in Oslo, and his watery inspiration taken from there – Sognnsvann – is a beautifully lilting lakeside theme imaginable as a Trio Mediaeval interpretation. Contrasting pibroch-styled Interlude, under greying skies, swoons to plaintive tenor over double bass drone, its icy grip relinquished to Hopeful Morning which skips with memorable, almost Spyro Gyra-like radio appeal.
Dedication Dear Grandma seems to draw from its composer a sense of gratitude and ‘place’ in a tranquil, meandering ballad; and the aurora of closing improvisation Valley signals the sun to gradually arc into full brilliance as the quartet thunders in rock-solid celebration.
Matt Carmichael’s musicality already displays striking maturity and awareness, with a compositional vocabulary that suggests much for future projects. Right now, Where Will The River Flow is likely to put a spring in your step!
Released on 12 March 2021 and available in CD, vinyl and digital formats at Bandcamp.
Matt Carmichael tenor saxophone
Fergus McCreadie piano
Ali Watson double bass
Tom Potter drums
Album art by Joanne Carmichael
*quoted from An Ode to Spring – Robert (Rabbie) Burns
Porthole Music – PM01 (2021)